Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Herbert Vere (Bert) Evatt (1894–1965)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published:

Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965), by Max Dupain

Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965), by Max Dupain

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an25060678

Herbert Vere (Bert) Evatt (1894-1965), politician and judge, was born on 30 April 1894 at East Maitland, New South Wales, fifth of eight sons of John Ashmore Evatt, a publican from India, and his Sydney-born wife Jane 'Jeanie' Sophia, née Gray. His father, the amiable but ineffectual scion of a well-connected English family, died when Bert was 7, and his Irish-Australian mother shouldered the task of encouraging an intellectually gifted family. Bert attended East Maitland Superior Public School and from 1905 Fort Street Model (Boys' High) School, Sydney, matriculated brilliantly in 1911 and entered St Andrew's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1915; M.A., 1917; LL.B., 1918—each with first-class honours), where he achieved excellent results in mathematics, logic, philosophy and English, and won a swag of medals and awards.

Prodigiously energetic, he played cricket, Rugby League football, hockey and baseball, edited Hermes, tutored at his college and presided (1916-17) over the University Union. He was rejected for service in World War I because of astigmatism. At first he supported conscription, but grew disenchanted with the 'Yes' arguments in the referendum of 1917. His anti-conservatism was reinforced by the influence of his radical friend Gordon Childe. In 1918 Evatt published Liberalism in Australia (a thesis on the evolution of Australian politics towards liberal democracy) and joined the Australian Labor Party. After a period as associate to Sir William Cullen, chief justice of New South Wales, he was admitted to the Bar on 31 October 1918.

The 1920s were golden years for Evatt. He advanced fast at the Bar and in 1924 the university awarded him an LL.D. From 1920 to 1921 he had assisted the royal commission into the victimization of the 1917 transport strikers; in 1920 he had been junior counsel for the State government in the Engineers' case and encountered the successful rivalry of (Sir) Robert Menzies in the High Court of Australia. At the Congregational Church, Mosman, on 27 November 1920 Evatt married Mary Alice Sheffer; their partnership, sometimes turbulent, was always devoted. The honeymoon was spent in Hawaii and California where Evatt conducted an inquiry for the Commonwealth government into American treatment of Asian minorities. Immigration issues occupied him for several years. Assisting Andy Watt in the High Court, he failed in 1923 to prevent the expulsion of two Irish republican 'envoys', but succeeded in 1925 in averting the deportation of the trade union militants Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson. Evatt travelled to London in 1926 to attend an international conference on labour migration, at which he strongly upheld the White Australia policy.

Elected to the Legislative Assembly in May 1925 as a Labor member for Balmain, he soon fell foul of Premier J. T. Lang. Evatt rapidly became an outspoken back-bench critic of Lang's machine politics. In 1926 he provoked discord by chairing a parliamentary select committee which investigated allegations by the Labor Daily that the Nationalists had bribed Labor politicians. Refused endorsement in 1927, he held Balmain that year as an Independent Labor candidate and cultivated E. G. Theodore, but had no political future while Lang remained dominant. In 1929 Evatt was appointed K.C. He quit State politics in October 1930 to devote himself to the law; his practice was one of the largest in the State, earning £8000 to £10,000 a year. On 19 December he was appointed a justice of the High Court of Australia.

At 36 Evatt was the youngest judge elevated to the High Court. He invited controversy not only because he had been nominated by a Labor cabinet, but also because of his secretive and disputatious working habits and his frequent dissenting judgements. Yet, his isolation can be exaggerated. Surviving correspondence suggests civility and even cordiality in his dealings with most of his brother judges, (Sir) Hayden Starke excepted.

Evatt's centralist tendencies were consistent with the High Court's post-1920 trend and admitted exceptions. With Chief Justice Sir Frank Duffy, in 1932 he dissented from the majority view which upheld the Commonwealth's claim against the New South Wales government after the Federal government had paid that State's repudiated interest bills. During the 1930s, in a tangled series of decisions about section 92 of the Constitution (which was concerned with trade between the States), Evatt consistently construed the term 'absolutely free' as being designed to inhibit protectionist policies. He also showed growing awareness of the potential of the Commonwealth's external affairs power for strengthening the authority of the Federal government.

In two notable victories for civil liberties Evatt joined the majority in upholding appeals by the left-wing journalist Hal Devanny in 1932 against a conviction under the Crimes Act (1914-32) and by the Czech communist Egon Kisch in 1934 against his exclusion from Australia. Geoffrey Sawer considered that, despite Evatt's enormous learning, his law lacked 'analytical muscle', but added that his 'forte was a feeling for the social revelations of law, for moulding doctrine to developing needs and to the values of contemporary men'. Evatt's verdicts were sometimes preconceived, often pragmatic, and he sought to explore the intent of legislation; he was influenced by decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, and by jurists such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Felix Frankfurter. In a conservative decade Evatt's presence on the court was a useful and timely stimulus.

He contributed significantly to Australian cultural life, especially in the 1930s. A discerning and influential patron of modern art, he supported the Contemporary Art Society and collected extensively—he and his wife may have been the first Australians to own a Modigliani. In 1937-63 he was president of trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales. He was a productive historian. The King and His Dominion Governors (London, 1936), a constitutional study prompted by Lang's dismissal in 1932, was consulted by partisans of both sides when Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government in 1975. Injustice Within the Law (1937), a dissertation on the Tolpuddle martyrs, and Rum Rebellion (1938), an attempted rehabilitation of Governor William Bligh, both used the methods of legal advocacy to redress perceived defects in earlier historiography. Unashamedly partisan in their support for the underdog, the two books have been overtaken by later scholarship, and some readers find uncanny elements of self-portrayal in Evatt's account of Bligh. Australian Labour Leader (1940) was probably Evatt's finest work, a perceptive and sympathetic tribute to a hero of his youth W. A. Holman. The university awarded Evatt a D.Litt. in 1944.

On the outbreak of World War II he had seemed a comfortably established public figure, subject to periodic criticism, but growing in reputation. He maintained his interest in Rugby League and cricket; his knowledge of sporting statistics was, if anything, excessive. With few close friends, he held the affection of many, ranging from social critics, such as Eleanor Dark and Kylie Tennant, to the archetypal mining capitalist W. S. Robinson. Evatt's family life was notably supportive; he and Mary Alice had adopted two children, Peter and Rosalind. Bert smoked seldom, drank moderately and enjoyed food. The stocky, broad-shouldered figure of earlier years was acquiring a paunch. But his restless energy was undiminished, and continuing service on the High Court no longer contented him. He sought more active means of serving his country during wartime, possibly because he had no hope of becoming chief justice ahead of (Sir) Owen Dixon. With Lang's overthrow in 1939, a return to politics was feasible. At the September 1940 Federal elections he secured Labor endorsement for the seat of Barton, won it and was to hold it, on occasions precariously, until 1958.

He entered a hung parliament, with the Menzies government's survival in the hands of two Independents. Impatient for office, Evatt chafed at the caution of his leader John Curtin and schemed ceaselessly. In December 1940 he rushed to Western Australia in the forlorn hope of helping Labor's candidate to win the Swan by-election, and in May 1941 wrote to Menzies offering inadequately veiled support for a national government. Curtin, who had nominated Evatt to the Advisory War Council in March, admired his ability, but withheld full trust. Following Menzies' resignation in August, Evatt busied himself in courting the Independent Alex Wilson whose defection helped to bring Labor into office. In the Curtin government, sworn in on 7 October, Evatt was attorney-general and minister for external affairs. He was to retain both offices until 1949.

Evatt's ministerial style soon aroused antagonism. Unsparingly hard working, and capable of mastering immense detail, he pursued the objective of the moment obsessively, though his tactics were often flexible and at times devious. To his staff he was frequently demanding, hectoring and inconsiderate, but capable of unexpected flashes of empathy. Cabinet and diplomatic colleagues respected his competence, while doubting his loyalty; he had too much ego and too little self-awareness for good teamwork. He attracted more than the average politician's share of vicious rumour.

Following Japan's entry into the war and southward thrust towards Australia, in March 1942 the government decided to send Evatt to Washington and London to state Australia's needs. Menzies and others gossiped that the Evatts were fleeing the Japanese peril. In fact, Evatt pathologically hated flying, but he readily convinced himself that only he could put his country's case forcefully enough. His six weeks in Washington accomplished little beyond the setting up of the token Pacific War Council; in reporting to Curtin, however, Evatt claimed that the Americans recognized Australia's strategic importance and political consequence. It was only in London in May, apparently at first by accident, that he discovered that Britain and America were committed to a 'beat Hitler first' strategy.

Coached by Robinson, Evatt contained his outrage. Having earlier ruffled feathers in both countries by an over-aggressive approach, he schooled himself to build bridges with the British. Prime Minister (Sir) Winston Churchill was responsive and promised to send three Spitfire squadrons to Australia—a crisis in the Middle East delayed their arrival, but the squadrons seemed a symbol that Evatt's forthrightness could reap dividends. Before leaving England, he was sworn of the Privy Council and made an honorary master of the bench of the Middle Temple, compliments which he appreciated. The need for planes for the Royal Australian Air Force continued, and in April 1943 Evatt was dispatched on another mission to the U.S.A. and Britain. He secured substantial promises of aircraft, but delivery later fell short of the promises. Evatt's journey reinforced his belief that the U.S.A. was careless of his country's national interests and strategic priorities, and convinced him that Australia's prospects were better served by the British alliance, an alliance which to him was compatible with an emphatic assertion of Australian nationalism.

For much of the war Evatt's role as attorney-general preoccupied him most. His record over civil liberties was chequered. On taking office, he had immediately secured the release from internment of the communist trade unionists Horace Ratliff and Max Thomas, yet he did not lift the ban on the Communist Party of Australia until December 1942. He moved slowly on the plight of interned aliens. Nor did he hasten the release of sixteen members of the Australia-First Movement who had been interned without trial during his absence in 1942, thus earning the obloquy of their spokesman P. R. Stephensen. Evatt believed that the war effort overrode individual freedom. He was given to interfering with broadcasting policy, and chaired a parliamentary censorship committee in 1944. None the less, he usually curbed efforts to use national security for political ends.

Despite a daunting load of routine business in shaping national security regulations and drafting legislation for measures such as uniform taxation, Evatt took energetic initiatives towards constitutional change. The Statute of Westminster was adopted in 1942, with some Opposition support. Concerned for postwar reconstruction, he unsuccessfully sought from the States fourteen new powers which the Commonwealth planned to exercise for five years after hostilities ceased. In August 1944 the Federal government submitted the fourteen proposals to a referendum on an all-or-nothing basis, adding guarantees of religious toleration and freedom of speech which Evatt hoped would reconcile public opinion. Following vehement Opposition hostility, the referendum was lost. The experience nourished Evatt's belief that social change was most readily achieved through a strengthened central government.

In October 1944 the American minister to Australia Nelson F. Johnson complained of Evatt: 'when he has finished with his politicking, and his Attorney-Generaling, he has damned little time for External Affairs'. Johnson may have soon rued his remark. Evatt had already shown disrespect for Great Power leadership. Irked that Britain, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union had made important decisions at conferences in Moscow and Cairo in 1943 without consulting their allies, in January 1944 he persuaded New Zealand to join Australia in an agreement for a regional commission for the South Pacific. American foreign policy advisers disliked this assertion of regional interests, though the British covertly sympathized. Evatt's opportunity to act with greater effect arose after the Yalta discussions of February 1945, at which the Great Powers agreed to call a United Nations conference on a proposed world organization. Scheduled to begin on 25 April at San Francisco, this gathering was to make Evatt's international reputation.

The Australian delegation included Frank Forde, deputy prime minister and nominally Evatt's senior. It was uncertain whether Forde or Evatt was leader, and it may have been that the ailing Curtin wanted both men out of the way to bolster J. B. Chifley's prospects as his successor. Evatt took with him an able team of advisers, among them (Sir) Kenneth Bailey, John Burton, (Sir) Paul Hasluck and (Sir) Alan Watt. Thus supported, Evatt gained prominence during the next two months as spokesman for Australia and for the smaller and middle-ranking nations who wished to empower the U.N. as an instrument of collective security. Evatt probably intervened on too many fronts, but his achievements were significant. Although his vigorous campaigning failed to reduce the Great Powers' right of veto in the Security Council, the role of the smaller nations was strengthened by enlarging the scope of discussion in the General Assembly.

Evatt's team also succeeded in writing into the U.N. Charter a stronger commitment to full employment than originally planned. Where Australia's domestic interests were concerned, Evatt manoeuvred shrewdly. Seeking a definition of colonial trusteeship which would facilitate Australian control of the territories of Papua and New Guinea, he accepted a lesser degree of international accountability than he had originally advocated. He also accepted a concept of domestic jurisdiction compatible with Australia's policies on immigration and towards the Aborigines.

While Evatt was returning to Australia in July 1945, Curtin died. In the ensuing leadership ballot, one or two votes, apparently unsought, went to Evatt; Chifley was elected prime minister and confirmed Evatt in his portfolios. On 15 August the war in the Pacific ended. By then Evatt had a clearly defined foreign policy strategy, though his day-to-day tactics sometimes obscured his aims. Australia's regional security was paramount. It was essential, therefore, that the country's northern neighbours were in stable and friendly hands; in the early postwar months he favoured the restoration of Dutch, British and Portuguese authority in South-East Asia. In addition, Evatt held that Australia and New Zealand should wield influence in the South-West Pacific, without too much American intervention—a policy which led to the wrangle (1945-47) between Australia and the U.S.A. over Manus Island.

For Evatt, the Americans were better occupied in ensuring that Japan was permanently pacified, and he was annoyed by their refusal to arraign Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. The U.S. State Department came to view Evatt as a troublemaker; for his part, Evatt increasingly valued Australia's British Commonwealth connexions as a buttress against American pressure. This viewpoint did not entail presenting a united front. At San Francisco he had made it plain that Australia would speak with its own voice in the international arena. In the brief interval between the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War many Australians found this stand attractive.

It remained questionable how far a nation of Australia's modest military-industrial strength could carry an autonomous foreign policy. Believing that international relations could become a new province for law and order, based where possible on democratic and ethical standards, Evatt argued that, in the U.N., Australia should not align itself automatically with any major power bloc, but should judge questions on their merits. By enabling the U.N. to develop in its early years as a forum whose outcomes were not always predictable, Evatt's Australia may have helped to secure legitimacy for the new organization, and perhaps allowed the U.N. to act as a force for restraint in the Cold War.

Evatt participated tirelessly. He sat on the U.N. Security Council and became first president (1946) of the Atomic Energy Commission. In January 1947 he attended a South Pacific regional conference in Canberra. At the second session of the General Assembly he chaired a special committee on Palestine; and he attained a cherished ambition with his election as president of the third session (September 1948 to May 1949). Australia's mediatory role during these years was not always fruitful: the resolution of the long-running crisis in Greece owed little to Evatt's endeavours and he failed to defuse the Berlin crisis of 1948-49. Australia's influence helped to bring about partition in Palestine, though Israel did not welcome Evatt's support for the internationalization of Jerusalem. Outside the U.N., a particularly constructive initiative was his advocacy in 1948 that Britain accept Ireland's declaration of independence from the Commonwealth without reprisals.

Nearer to home, Evatt had at first hoped to safeguard Australia's northern approaches by leasing or taking over Timor, the Netherlands New Guinea (Irian Jaya) and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), or by at least establishing Australian bases there. Influenced to some degree by his new departmental secretary and protégé Burton, Evatt grew more alert to South-East Asian nationalism, and in August 1947 formally offered Australia's services in mediating between the Indonesian republicans and the Dutch. The Indonesians accepted, and Australia worked for an orderly transfer of power in 1949.

Australia's concern to prevent a resurgence of Japanese power had been thwarted from 1947 by the Americans' intention to revive Japan's economy as a bulwark against communism. That year Evatt lobbied General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander, Allied Powers in Japan, in the hope of obtaining an assured role for Australia in any peace negotiations, but Australia's influence remained negligible, especially after the communists' victory in China in 1949.

Evatt's concentration on foreign policy cost him some of his effectiveness as postwar attorney-general. Confident of his ability to master complex issues quickly, he was apt to display a poor tactical sense in promoting the Labor government's policies. Although the High Court consistently restricted the spread of Federal power, Evatt showed an honourable, albeit a politically crippling, reluctance to influence the composition of the court. He repudiated a cabinet proposal in 1945 to appoint three new judges, made no attempt to introduce a retirement age and chose as his only nominee to the bench the lacklustre Sir William Webb.

Having publicly supported the contentious bank nationalization legislation of 1947, Evatt chose to lead for the government when the banks took the matter to the High Court. His forensic skills were rusty and his ex-colleagues sceptical; the majority found that the legislation was invalidated by s. 92 of the Constitution. Forgetful of nationalist sentiment, Evatt appealed to the Privy Council in London. His presentation took fourteen days and his response eight, interrupted by a dash to New York to preside over the U.N. General Assembly. In July 1949 the Privy Council upheld the High Court's decision. By this time an election was imminent.

An early enthusiast for the development of atomic energy in Australia, Evatt had keenly supported (Sir) Mark Oliphant's plans to build a cyclotron at the Australian National University; he was also involved in promoting the Anglo-Australian Joint Project (1947) which established the Woomera rocket range. In 1948 the U.S.A. ceased passing classified information to Australia, ostensibly for security reasons. Chifley responded in 1949 by forming the Australian Security Intelligence Organization within the attorney-general's department. The Americans did not remove their embargo until the government changed.

Labor's enemies made much of bank nationalization and the Cold War as harbingers of creeping socialism. Evatt, who had been deputy-leader of his party from October 1946, parried these thrusts energetically. Anxious to rebut the Opposition's allegations of being soft on communism, he willingly framed legislation in June 1949 to defeat the coalminers' strike, and rejected advice from the Department of External Affairs favouring diplomatic recognition of the communist regime in China. More constructively, he approved the departmental initiatives which led in 1950 to the formulation of the Colombo Plan. But by then Evatt was out of office following Labor's defeat on 10 December 1949.

In April 1950 the Menzies government introduced a bill to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia. Slow at first to resist the measure, Evatt swung into strong opposition when it became clear that civil liberties would be jeopardized. Although Labor was obliged by its executive to support the legislation in principle, Evatt accepted a brief to appear in the High Court for the Waterside Workers' Federation in a challenge to the Act. This time his arguments persuaded the court, which, by a six to one majority, held in March 1951 that the statute was invalid. That month Menzies secured a double dissolution. His government was returned in April with a majority in both Houses. Chifley died in June and Evatt was unanimously elected to succeed him.

The Menzies government responded to its defeat in the High Court by proposing a referendum giving the Commonwealth power to deal with communism. Evatt might have chosen to proceed cautiously. Instead, he launched himself into one of his most vigorous barnstorming campaigns, stumping the country for a 'No' vote in defiance of public opinion polls which forecast majorities of between 70 and 80 per cent in favour of the proposal. It has been called his finest hour. Enough voters were persuaded to change their minds for the referendum to be defeated by a narrow margin in September 1951.

Evatt's attack on anti-communist legislation had come under fire from a right-wing section of his party, mainly Victorian Catholics sympathetic to the industrial groups who were attempting to wrest control from communists in the trade unions. Identified with the 'groupers', though separate from and not always in accord with them, was the Catholic Social Studies Movement directed by B. A. Santamaria. Evatt sought to conciliate these factions, initially with some success. In 1952-53 Labor benefited from the government's inept handling of inflation, performing well in State polls and at the half-Senate elections in May 1953. Yet, at the May 1954 Federal elections, although Labor won over 50 per cent of votes in all contested seats, the Menzies government scraped home with a 64 to 57 majority.

This outcome was partly due to the aftermath of the first visit (February to April 1954) by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh to Australia and more immediately to the rash prodigality of Evatt's campaign promises. Eager for office, he had pledged to abolish the means test on pensions without costing the scheme. To his colleagues he made contradictory commitments about the allocation of cabinet offices. Ultimately, the scales may have been tilted against Labor by the defection of Vladimir Petrov, an official from the Embassy of the Soviet Union. Menzies announced the defection on 13 April, the last night of the outgoing parliament, without managing to alert Evatt to the imminence of an important issue which might have led him to cancel a prior appointment in Sydney. Petrov's wife was subsequently removed in dramatic circumstances from a Moscow-bound aircraft. Menzies set up a royal commission to investigate the Petrovs' testimony about Soviet espionage in Australia. Evatt convinced himself that the Petrov revelations were timed for maximum effect in damaging Labor's prospects at the elections. This conviction hardened into certainty when the royal commission heard allegations that members of his personal staff had been in communication with the Soviet embassy.

To a person of Evatt's intense ambition and suspiciousness, the provocation was irresistible. He decided to appear as counsel before the royal commission to defend his staff and expose what he saw as a conspiracy orchestrated by Menzies. Despite the hostility of the three royal commissioners (all judges of lesser stature than his own), Evatt made some progress against A.S.I.O.'s witnesses, but his conduct was sufficiently unguarded to give the commissioners a pretext in September for prohibiting his further appearance before them.

Sections of the Labor caucus were also growing restive at Evatt's preoccupation with the Petrov inquiry. In August he faced a post-election challenge to his leadership from T. P. Burke, and, although he won easily, it was an omen of future dissension. A subtler leader might have noticed differences between Santamaria's 'Movement' and Labor's largely Catholic Victorian right wing, and used them to maintain party unity. Such was not Evatt's style. On 5 October 1954 he launched a sensational attack against 'disloyal' elements which aimed 'to deflect the Labor Movement from the pursuit of established Labor objectives and ideals'. At a caucus meeting on 20 October the party voted by 52 votes to 28 against a motion to throw all leadership positions open to contest, but Evatt's insistence on counting the names on either side added to the acrimony. He then urged the federal executive of the A.L.P. to investigate the pro-'grouper' Victorian branch. The showdown came at a special federal conference in Hobart in March 1955. By a narrow margin the conference backed Evatt and withdrew support from the industrial groups. Seven Victorian members of the House of Representatives and a Tasmanian senator quit the A.L.P. to form the Anti-Communist (later Democratic) Labor Party.

The breakaways feuded venomously with the Evatt party for much of 1955, but it was Evatt himself who most damaged his credibility as leader. In September the final report of the royal commission on espionage came before parliament. Despite all the muckraking, it had been unable to furnish the basis for a single prosecution. Its futility was overlooked when Evatt stated in the House that he had asked V. M. Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, about the authenticity of Russian-language documents supplied by the Petrovs, and had received Molotov's denial. Evatt's defenders argue that he was simply seeking to establish a basis for an international commission into the affair. Politically, it was an extremely naive move, made without consultation and without the excuse of impulse. Menzies seized the opportunity to call elections in December 1955 and Labor was thrashed.

Evatt lasted as Labor's leader for four more years. On his good days he continued to figure as an impressive libertarian. In the spring of 1956 he trenchantly opposed Menzies' role in support of Britain and France during the Suez crisis, though without avail. His party valued his services enough to move him to the safe seat of Hunter before the 1958 Federal elections. He again invited controversy by offering—without seeking advice from his colleagues—to step down as leader if the D.L.P. (then commanding about 9 per cent of the popular vote) would direct its second preferences to the A.L.P. The offer was spurned and Labor was once more soundly beaten. In February 1959 E. J. Ward stood against Evatt for the leadership but lost by 32 votes to 46.

Some have argued that Evatt's tactics of confrontation and conflict in his dealings with the right-wing breakaways suggest mental instability. Contrariwise, there is testimony that his mood was mellow and serene even after the disappointment of the 1958 election campaign. By the time the New South Wales Labor government narrowly decided in January 1960 to offer him the State's chief justiceship, Evatt was gradually succumbing to a breakdown in his intellectual powers. He was suffering from cerebral thrombosis and arteriosclerosis. His memory faltered and his habits became increasingly erratic. He possibly had an epileptic tendency, though this in itself would be insufficient to account for the painful deterioration which marked his term (from 15 February) as chief justice. Largely shielded by his colleagues from open scandal, he suffered a stroke in March 1962 while en route to a law reform commission meeting in London. On 24 October he resigned.

Thereafter Evatt was under the devoted care of family and nurses. Survived by his wife and adopted children, he died on 2 November 1965 at Forrest, Canberra. He was accorded a state funeral and buried with Anglican rites in Canberra cemetery; Menzies was a pallbearer. Arnold Shore's portrait of Evatt is held by the family and another by W. E. Pidgeon is in the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

In death as in life, controversy has surrounded Evatt's reputation. To Katharine Prichard he was an unappreciated Titan, to Manning Clark 'a man who had the image of Christ in his heart'; others found him evil and a treacherous monster. Like Menzies, Evatt was an educated man who chose public life instead of enriching himself through the law. His genuine love of sport and careful cultivation of a flat, monotonous, proletarian voice bridged many gaps. It is difficult to reconcile the high principles of Evatt's international thought and his tenacious concern for justice with the self-seeking adventurism of much of his day-to-day political conduct. W. J. Hudson may well be correct in attributing Evatt's greed for publicity and suspicion of rivals to the uncertainties of a boy orphaned of his father when young and brought up by a demanding mother who grudged praise. It remains a paradox that the man who was Australia's most creative and innovative foreign minister, with an impressive, though uneven, record as a libertarian jurist, should have alienated so many through his deficiencies in personal relations and his incapacity for teamwork.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1961-70
  • A. Dalziel, Evatt the Enigma (Melb, 1967)
  • K. Tennant, Evatt (Syd, 1970)
  • A. Curthoys and J. Merritt (eds), Australia's First Cold War 1945-1953, vol 1 (Syd, 1984)
  • P. Crockett, Evatt (Melb, 1993)
  • W. J. Hudson, Australia and the New World Order (Canb, 1993)
  • K. Buckley, B. Dale and W. Reynolds, Doc Evatt (Melb, 1994)
  • Historical Studies, 18, no 73, Oct 1979, p 546, 22, no 89, Oct 1987, p 587
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, 38, no 3, 1992, p 316
  • Evatt papers (Flinders University Library).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Evatt, Herbert Vere (Bert) (1894–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965), by Max Dupain

Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965), by Max Dupain

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an25060678

Life Summary [details]


30 April, 1894
Maitland, New South Wales, Australia


2 November, 1965 (aged 71)
Forrest, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations